Tribune. On October 30, his 60th birthday, Diego Maradona was filmed at the headquarters of Gimnasia y Esgrima in La Plata, the club he coached. Obese, having the greatest difficulty in walking without being supported, Maradona stammered a few inaudible words in front of the cameras. The exhibition of Golden Boy (the golden kid) that amazed the football world in the 1980s was an unbearable spectacle, a heart-breaking obscene staging.
A lover of funny aphorisms, Maradona once explained that when you have made the return trip from Earth to the Moon several times, it is difficult to come back down to Earth. When you’ve climbed to the heights of football, carved your name, your face and your actions into the hearts of so many, it is unthinkable to regain your foothold in the mortal world. When you come back down, it’s a vertiginous and destructive fall, like that of Diego Maradona.
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Embodying an ideal-typical “argentinity” in the eyes of the nation and representing unparalleled football purity, Maradona was a human god in the eyes of many. The famous number 10 was a football legend because of his outstanding footballing qualities. Professional football has great, talented and efficient players on the pitch. The supporters admire them. Football fans did not admire Maradona; they worshiped him as one venerates a deity.
Players with extraordinary talents are able to create a spectacle that is literally mesmerizing. Diego Maradona belonged to this elite of football extraterrestrials. Like an exceptional painting or a sublime piece of music, Maradona’s football choreography was in the realm of art.
A football god no longer belongs. Maradona attracted the underworld of politics, showbiz and the Camorra. He was revered, but he was also hoped to enjoy his fortune, which he squandered. From his brief stint in Barcelona, Diego Maradona had become addicted to alcohol and cocaine, two addictions that shattered his career. At the 1990 World Cup, Italy were eliminated in Naples by Maradona’s Argentina. The Italians did not forgive him. The country allied itself against him, police, the political world and supporters. Diego the saint became Maradona the devil. An anti-doping test was positive for the first time. Listened to by the police, he was heard conversing with prostitution circles. The taxman got involved. The whole of Italy wanted to destroy the one it still adored yesterday. Frightened, Maradona hurriedly fled the city.
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Born in 1960, Diego grew up in the slum of Villa Fiorito, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. This district has the reputation of being the most dangerous in the city. His father, a native Guarani, worked in a slaughterhouse. Her mother was the daughter of immigrants from southern Italy. As a child, he sold odds and ends in the street. Maradona described herself as “Little black head” (small black head); the expression used by Eva Perón to designate the Native American working classes and of Italian origin. His parents were also infallible supporters of the Peronist regime.
An uncle brought Diego out of poverty by giving him a soccer ball at the age of 3. At 8, the first division club Argentinos Juniors recruited him. At the age of 11, the national press predicted the fate of a football star for him. At 16, he made his professional debut.
Before the fall of the military dictatorship in Argentina, young Diego was already a national hero. In 1979 he led Argentina to victory over the USSR at the U20 World Championship. This team consisted of kids partly from the favelas and who had learned to play football on vacant lots; a technical game of short passes, feints and lightning acceleration to compensate for small sizes.
Maradona met Fidel Castro in 1987. A close friendship developed between the two men. He later became acquainted with Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, with whom he also bonded. Supporting radical left regimes in Latin America, he declared in 2007 that “Everything Fidel does is excellent” and assured that he “Hates with all his might anything that comes from the United States”. It is in Cuba that Maradona chooses to seek treatment for her drug addiction. Realizing his immense popularity and his ability to mesmerize crowds, Castro suggested that Maradona enter politics. By a disturbing coincidence, Maradona died on November 25, like her political idol four years earlier.
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Maradona was, in his own way, a political animal. From the 1980s on, his statements were listened to with deference. Peronist orator, he bewitched the crowds. He was given the job of coach of the national team at the 2010 World Cup when he had never coached any team. It ended badly. In glory or failure, Diego Maradona was a god and everything was passed to him. A cult in Argentina was named after him and a replica of his plastic penis was exhibited in a museum in Buenos Aires. Maradona filled this fake penis with urine other than his own during doping controls.
More than twenty-five years after his hasty departure from Naples, the memory of Maradona is still vivid in people’s minds. Two years ago, while I was walking in Forcella, a district of the city center under the influence of the Camorra, I saw on the wall of a building an inscription in still fresh paint: “Diego, make us dream again.” (“Diego, make us dream again”). A football god never dies. It lives in our memories of amazed children.
Philippe Marlière professor of political science at University College London